The Active Constructive Response to Life

If you read the previous post, you heard all kinds of stuff about how being active constructive can improve your relationship. In fact, it’s the one thing that improves the chances of it lasting. Let’s save what that means for a later “Love” post; for now, let’s just say it’s a good idea. You can even hear me and my Middle Daughter talk about it in the upcoming Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast.

But what if we took that concept beyond relationships? Is there any way to use that strategy to improve daily life?

Everyone Isn’t Out to Get You

One of my favorite long-distance friends posted an article recently that made me think that yes, that’s exactly the strategy needed for a lot of life’s situations. In the eminently clickable 10 Ways You’re Making Your Life Harder Than It Needs to BeTim Hoch starts off the list with:

Another driver cut you off. Your friend never texted you back. Your co-worker went to lunch without you. Everyone can find a reason to be offended on a steady basis. So what caused you to be offended? You assigned bad intent to these otherwise innocuous actions. You took it as a personal affront, a slap in the face.

Happy people do not do this. They don’t take things personally. They don’t ascribe intent to the unintentional actions of others. (emphasis added)

In other words, it’s not actually about you. Things happen, sure, but since your mind loves stories it creates a vast conspiracy that doesn’t actually exist. The world is not out to get you; it has better things to do, like getting on with being the random concatenation of events it actually is. I get it – it’s not a cool a story as “the heavens aligned and for that one day I was unstoppable!

In fact, we’re very uncomfortable with the actual randomness of the world. In Thinking Fast and Slow Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann writes about the very human tendency for you to make up stories about the past, i.e. “that day that mercury was so in retrograde”:

The illusion that one has understood the past feeds the further illusion that one can predict and control the future. These illusions are comforting. They reduce the anxiety that we would experience if we allowed ourselves to fully acknowledge the uncertainties of existence. We all have a need for the reassuring message that actions have appropriate consequences, and that success will reward wisdom and courage.

What if there was a better way to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?

The Banzai Sanshou Method

PERFECT TOMMY: "But why do I have to do, Buck?" BUCKAROO: "Because you're perfect, Tommy." - Good ACR!
A Model of ACR Life

“Banzai” is not, as is popularly imagined, a battle cry. It was part of a battle cry during World War II, but what it actually means is “10,000 Years of Prosperity!” Now that you know this, you cannot un-know it. And the next time you have something “bad” happens to you, let me suggest that you say the word “Banzai!” three times (that’s the sanshou part).

Why? Well, think about what you usually do: you either say a word synonymous with excrement, or a word implying a trip to Hell, or a word suggesting an act that is actually quite pleasant but which carries a lot of shame in contemporary culture (and is probably biologically unlikely in the way you exclaim it, in any case). Or you say “shoot” or “darn” or “fudge” because somehow changing the syllables but keeping the intent of the words makes it appropriate (I’ve never actually understood that logic, but let us not digress).

Instead, you say “Banzai.” Then you realize you didn’t quite give it enough emphasis, so you add an exclamation point: “Banzai!” At that point you realize just how fun it is to say the word and so you might even switch to all-caps: “BANZAI!

By that time, people are looking at you strangely (unless they either speak Japanese or are a fellow reader of this blog) and you have had time to realize that you’ve just wished 30,000 years of prosperity – five times longer than recorded human history – upon…who? What? Doesn’t really matter, but it’s an awful lot of good will. And it’s exciting.

And that’s exactly what the Active Constructive mode of interaction is about.

Active and constructive responses are characterized by sincere enthusiasm for the good event being described, by being excited and happy for the other person and by showing genuine interest in the good event being described.

-Asst. Prof. Shelly Gable, U.C.

Good Luck, Bad Luck, Who Knows?

I know what you’re thinking. “Good events, Gray. This is all about good events. How is this ACR stuff supposed to help when life throws us bad events?

And you have, with that question, fallen quite neatly into my little trap. Let me remind you of the immortal words of the Bard, who possibly said it best in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What the “Banzai Sanshou” method does is puts you in a positive frame of mind (unlike those other words) and gives you a chance to do your best Picard imitation and make it so.

It’s not really that hard to find the silver lining – in fact, it’s so easy that clichés like “silver lining” exist. But one of my favorite parables about it is an ancient Chinese folk tale – I first read it from the philosopher Chuangtse, but there are many versions. It goes something like this.

A farmer one day discovered a magnificent stallion in his fields, unowned and apparently his for the taking. He and his son harnessed it and led it to the barn, while the people of his villagers exclaimed “What good fortune!”

The farmer shrugged. “Perhaps,” was all he would say.

The next day, while trying to saddle the stallion, the son was thrown from the horse and broke his arm. He would be unable to help with the harvest, putting a huge burden of work on the farmer. “What ill fortune!” the villagers exclaimed.

“Perhaps,” the farmer shrugged.

The next day the army came to town, conscripting all of the able-bodied young men of the village for a far-off and unnecessary conflict. Because of his broken arm, the son was spared and lived a long and happy life. 


You see? You don’t really understand the past, and you can’t predict the future. So it’s just as likely that the guy who cut you off in traffic just saved you from the car accident two miles ahead. Your friend didn’t text you because they were trying to cut down on their phone addiction. By not inviting you to lunch, your co-worker saved you from the food poisoning at that restaurant.

The world isn’t out to get you. But with a little Active Constructive Response you can make it out so that the odds really do seem to be ever in your favor.

(They aren’t, by the way). They’re just odds. But it’s more fun to play with them that way, isn’t it?

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